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‘The Appeal’ leaves a bad taste

“The Appeal,” by John Gris-ham. Doubleday. 358 pp. $27.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
Forget truth, justice and the American way.
Instead, expect lies, crimes and the American cesspool.
It’s “The Appeal,” John Grisham’s latest novel.
If it doesn’t depress you, especially in an election year, then you must be one of “them” ó big business, incompetent doctors, crooked lawyers, dirty lobbyists, you name it.
Don’t expect a happy ending, either. The truth and justice is overwhelmed by greed and power. Ostensibly, “The Appeal” is about Baker vs. Krane Chemical, a case of the little person versus a mega-company.
Jeanette Baker loses her husband and son to cancer when the water in Bowmore, Miss., turns from bad to deadly. The trial finds Krane Chemical’s plant in Bowmore is to blame. Testimony shows Krane has dumped tons of chemical waste, known poisons and toxins, that have leached into the aquifer. The result ó Bowmore’s water is poison.
The Bakers are just two of more than 16 who have already died, with more sickened or dying.
Grisham’s cardboard cutout characters don’t tug at the heartstrings. But the situation is not beyond imagining, and that elicits sympathy from the reader.
The trial lawyers who accept Jeanette Baker’s case are only slightly fleshed out. Wes and Mary Grace Payton (why does every Southern woman in fiction have two first names?) are hard-working law partners who have hocked everything, from their fancy house to her Jaguar to pay for the case. Their two lovely children don’t mind the dingy apartment with the illegal alien nanny at all. It’s an adventure.
The bad guys, as in Carl Trudeau, Krane Chemical’s evil emperor, are soooo bad they could be villains in a Batman movie.
Everyone can be bought. Trudeau always gets what he wants. He has strings, fingers and money in every business, pie and bank in the free world. The ultra-powerful man at the head of the ultra-unethical company refuses to lose when a Mississippi jury awards Jeanette Baker $41 million.
The celebration by the good guys doesn’t last long, as the bank calls in their overdue loan and they file for bankruptcy. The Paytons warn all their other clients that it will be a year or two before the state supreme court hears and rules on the case. More time before any other cases come forward.
The vultures descend in the form of unscrupulous lawyers who swoop in to file class action suits against Krane for everything from a hangnail to liver cancer.
But if they are vultures, Trudeau is a wolfman, a flesh-eating bacteria, a Terminator. He will cross any line to get what he wants.
So he hires a guy to find a guy to run for the Mississippi Supreme Court. Said guy will be portrayed as stifling frivolous lawsuits, voting on the side of the businesses that bring jobs to the impoverished communities. By golly, he’ll stop illegal aliens, gay marriage (not even an option in Mississippi), keep malpractice premiums down and make everyone happy.
Except for the folks in Bowmore.
What is especially depressing about this story is the huge machine that manipulates a completely inexperienced lawyer into a position of high power, a puppet of the big, the bad, the people-crushers.
Most of “The Appeal” is not devoted to the appeal, but the campaign to elect Ron Fisk so he will vote to overturn the verdict against Krane Chemical.
How anyone could be so gullible is hard to believe.
How brutally the honest, hard-working and fair are crushed is pretty sad, too.
Grisham, not known for compelling characters, doesn’t bring anyone to life. Stereotypes are easy and fit the bill when the real issue is corruption. If you want the people of Bowmore to win, it’s not because you know them but because you know the depths of injustice.
If, at the end, you hope Carl Trudeau explodes into a million, messy bits, then Grisham has done his job ó an easy one at that. Trudeau is the generic bad guy you’ve seen in too many formula movies ó trophy wife, so much money he can drop tens of millions on bad art, an absentee father, a back stabber, cheat, liar, fiscal criminal. On and on.
The tone of impending doom at the beginning of the book becomes a deafening roar as the story progresses.
In his terse author’s note at the end, he writes, “… I must say that there is a lot of truth in this story. As long as private money is allowed in judicial elections, we will see competing interests fight for seats on the bench. The issues are fairly common. Most of the warring factions are adequately described. The tactics are all too familiar. The results are not far off the mark.”
Point taken about electing judges ó but who’s to say the person appointing judges is any less biased or corrupt?
“The Appeal” will make any reader wonder about the election process, and not just for judges. It will anger and depress you, too, if you have any sense of decency.
Be informed before you vote!

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